Friday, September 25, 2009

A Red Dawn retrospective

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Wolverine and kill Russians. That’s what happens when you watch Red Dawn about 45 times in a year, as I did circa 1984-85.

Last week I revisited Red Dawn after many, many years and found it surprisingly … watchable. I admit that some scenes are pretty awful and cringe-inducing, and nostalgia may be obscuring some of its warts, but in general Red Dawn has held up as an entertaining action film with a great premise that, sadly, fails to live up to its heady potential.

I’ve often seen Red Dawn labeled around the internet as a) jingoistic and b) junk. While a) is mostly true, I will say this: Red Dawn is in every way a product of its time. In the mid-80s its premise seemed plausible. With films like The Terminator, Wargames, and The Day After on television and in our consciousness, World War III was a doomsday scenario to consider, not some fantasy to laugh at. The media likes to call the 1980s a decade of innocent excess and consumerism, but beneath the MTV veneer lurked the fear of instant annihilation. In some respects these were scary times, and Red Dawn represented our fears writ large. Given the enemy we were facing, albeit in a “cold war” standoff situation, national pride was nothing to scoff at. Cynicism was not as rampant as it is now.

As for b), no, I don’t consider Red Dawn junk, just very, very far-fetched. But once you commit to divorcing it from realism, I think it’s pretty entertaining. Put another way: If I want to watch a realistic war film which depicts the terrible reality of bullets meeting flesh, I’ll pop in Saving Private Ryan or an episode of Band of Brothers. If I want bloodless action masquerading as real war, Red Dawn fits the bill.

There are of course several things wrong with the film that I simply cannot gloss over. For example:

• Why are the Central Americans and Russians bothering with a shithole town in the middle of Colorado with no apparent military value?

• How is a limited nuclear exchange in any way possible? What, did the Soviet Union and the United States realize that mutually assured destruction wouldn’t make for a good film? If I was the U.S. and being overrun, I’d give the Soviets six hours to reverse course, or the nukes would be flying … at their country. There’s some discussion early in the film about “selective nuke strikes” wiping out silos in Omaha, Washington, the Dakotas, and Kansas City, but how they hit the U.S. with no advance warning is never satisfactorily explained.

• Why do the enemy forces that the Wolverines ambush a) lack any accuracy; b) not use grenades, artillery, heavy machine guns, etc. to just wipe these kids out as soon as they start firing from their “concealed positions” by the side of the road?

• Why is C. Thomas Howell’s death scene so bad? The suicidal last stand, his gun blazing, accompanied by cheesy, swelling music, his final cry of “Wolverines” as 23 mm helicopter cannon take him down—this is so bad as to defy description.

But now that these not insubstantial complaints are out of the way, on to the good.

John Milius’ writing. Milius is a good screenwriter and has a particular talent for crafting memorable dialogue. If you like the sparse but memorable lines of Conan the Barbarian, Dirty Harry, and Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws, you’ll also love his work in Red Dawn.

The pacing. Red Dawn doesn’t waste any time with exposition or character development. It opens with some stark subtitles about political crises and food shortages in Europe and the Soviet Union, and bare minutes into the movie we’re hit with...

The initial attack. Who can forget the shock of seeing Soviet Union paratroopers landing in the school yard? Like the silhouette of an annihilated atomic blast victim at ground zero, the image of the teacher walking outside to confront the soldiers before getting mercilessly mowed down is permanently burned into my brain. As is the next scene of the Russkies raking the classroom window with machine gun fire. I always felt bad for that girl lying in the window frame with a bullet in her head. You know the one.

Great “brother love.” I couldn’t help but be moved by the scene with Patrick Swayze cradling his dead brother (Charlie Sheen) on the park bench in the snow at the end of the film. Red Dawn actually contains an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment (the Central American officer putting down his AK-47 in disgust, Patrick Swayze sobbing at the old pictures of he and his brother Matt’s lost childhood, etc.), although this admittedly feels tacked-on and rather lost amidst the non-stop, kick-ass carnage.

The downed air force colonel. Powers Boothe has a great turn as Col. Andy Tanner, a downed F-15 fighter pilot who briefly joins the Wolverines. He plays the wise old warrior and Milius gives him most of the best lines in the movie, including:

The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that's why they're here. That's why they won't use nukes anymore; and we won't either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing's pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords.
• You think you're tough for eating beans every day? There's half a million scarecrows in Denver who'd give anything for one mouthful of what you got. They've been under siege for about three months. They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes... on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It's medieval.

I also love this early exchange with he and the Wolverines around a campfire:

Swayze: Well, who *is* on our side?
Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
Darryl Bates (played by Darren Dalton) Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
Col. Andy Tanner: There were.

Red Dawn is currently being remade and is on schedule for a 2010 release, according to the Internet Movie Database. I’m not sure how I feel about this: While it’s possible it could be improvement on the original—I always felt that Red Dawn was a great idea for a movie, just under-budgeted and riddled with flaws—I also think, as noted above, that it works as a product of its time. Times have changed, and now terrorism, not conventional war, lurks as our biggest threat.

That said, it would be interesting to see what CGI and a bigger budget could do for this film. I always wanted to see the big engagements in the South, the tactical nuke strikes, and the invasion of Alaska on the screen. Perhaps the remake will deliver.


Jesse said...

Nicely summed up. I re-watched this movie last year and I agree with your assessment. The action sequences felt very 1980s - not so much bloodless as RAMBOed-up.

I think the movie works best as a period piece.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I grew up in a small Montana town and my friends and I were heavily influenced by Red Dawn-we would take our 22 rifles and go camping and talk about how we would fight the Russian's al'a Wolverine style.

The movie made perfect sense to 10-12 year olds. Our town has miliraty value because to quote the movie "We live here!" but yeah my hometown had no military value. If anything we lived 200-300 miles from places that would be targets, all the ICBM silo's up toward Great Falls. Conventional wouldn't touch it because it would have been a target for the final thing and nothing to occupy afterward.

I am very leery of a remake, I automatically doubt it can capture the same magic that held a 10 year old in thrall.

Chad Thorson said...

I love Red Dawn! My brothers and I used to pretend we were the Wolverines!

I can't imagine a remake though, especially if it's done in the 21st century. And considering the quality of remakes I won't expect much.

Is it just me, or is Hollywood completely out of new ideas?

Falze said...

It's not just you.

Coming soon...Thundarr!!! In 3-D!!!

(that's a joke...hopefully)

Eric D. Lehman said...

Yes, I'm not sure the remake will capture the real fear of the 'evil empire' we had in the 80s.

And I disagree a little about the big engagements and such. I think this was one film that the low budget HELPED, because the kids felt so isolated and unsure. It was a 'small' story in a much bigger story of a terrible war. I think the ending with the monument captured that idea perfectly.

Of course, the military stupidity of invading the CENTER of a country to fight a two-front war still bugs me a lot and perhaps ruins the complete enjoyment of this occasionally silly film.

James Mishler said...

Couple things to help make sense of the action...

1) The town was apparently on one of the major passes through the Rocky Mountains... that was why it was strategic.

2) The Russians, Mexicans, and other Central American forces came up through the center of the country because they wanted the plains... the great heartland of wheat and corn. They were mostly fighting because Mother Russia was starving, and the Plains States are the grain heartlands.

3) Also, as mentioned, Mexico fell to a Marxist revolution, so they were simply able to drive their tanks and vehicles into the US once the forward paratroopers landed and took out any local resistance.

4) The plan thereafter seemed to be: hold the farmlands and starve out the East and West coasts... those on the coasts may think the "flyover states" are disposable, but they forget where their food comes from...

5) As for MAD... well, take out the Russians on their own turf and then you still have tens if not hundreds of thousands of Russians on US territory, obviously living off the land (there were no supplies to send for... the Motherland was starving!) And especially if most of the US ICBMs were taken out, the Russian response would be far worse than what the then-existent sub fleet could ahve done.

So you are left, as Col. Tanner said, witha conventional war...

Brian Murphy said...

James: some great analysis here. I either missed or just didn't think of the town as occupying a strategic route through the Rockies. Makes sense.

I know it was the explanation given, but I have a hard time buying the "invade for food" scenario. How does invading the U.S. feed the whole of the starving Soviet Union, thousands of miles away? You would have to not only occupy, but presumably kill all the U.S. populace (who would still need to eat), and then begin the unimaginably difficult proposition of continuing to grow/farm/breed this food with an occupying force of soldiers and transporting it back to Europe.

Also, due to radar and other sophisticated forms of surveillance, nuclear weapons cannot be launched without advance warning (as I understand it). It still doesn't make sense how the U.S. was caught flat-footed not only by these tactical nuclear strikes, but also by the movement of so much men and material to begin the ground invasion.

If Mexico had massed tanks and transport vehicles along the Texas border, wouldn't a couple of tactical nuke strikes by the U.S. have eliminated that problem?

Others: All the remakes are bothering me, too. Obviously they must be making money. They're presumably getting young audiences (who want to re-experience cool "retro" films, updated for modern times), and the slightly older audiences who come with one eye open and the other shut. Remakes offer the possibility of re-experiencing movies you remember fondly from your youth, and if they suck, it gives people like me the opportunity to savage them and talk about how much a remake wasn't necessary.

I personally think there's a case to be made for remaking good but flawed films, which is the opportunity to improve them. I don't understand why perfectly good older films need to be tinkered with. For example, I'm hearing Alien is up for a remake, which is ridiculous. That film was note-perfect.

Falze said...

For the curious - a video review from someone that's seen the remake script is available here:

It DOES contain spoilers. The new Wolverines are, to put it mildly, very 'multicultural'.

Eric D. Lehman said...

That makes more sense to me, James. Thanks for helping me to further enjoy this classic (?) film!

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to find a copy of the Novelization for a while now. It apparently explains and expounds on things. Like a Second battle of Jutland that prevented the Soviet airforce from attacking the East Coast (British I am assuming) and the Canadians and US stopping the invasion from the Berring land bridge.. which is hinted at by Powers Boothe in the movie (Then they came across the berring strait.. but we stopped em' cold). but as I said Not having read the novelization.. I'm gleaning most of this from 2nd or 3rd hand info so any or all of it could be fake..

There were also a large number of scenes cut from the movie, Mostly reprisals against civilians and a scene used in the trailer which was Soviet troops eating at a Mcdonalds which the Wolverines blow up.

Best also to discount the ending with Mrs. Howard the Duck's voice over.. as that was filmed after the movie was deemed ' Too depressing ' by test audiences..

The movie is especially poignant in this day in age when the US is fighting insurgencies. After all, I've no doubt that the Soviet Troops and Newspapers back in Russia were on about how " In Colorado, American Terrorists Blew up another Mcdonald's Today " The Wolverines just never got desperate enough to be Suicide bombers.. but with the situation in Denver, one can Imagine that it certainly is feasible there were some.